faces of (the human) race #2
Name: Deborah Emmanuel
Identifying Race: Mixed
Ethnicity: Indian, Chinese, Malay, Portuguese, and Dutch
Current Residency: Singapore
Profession: Poet and Performer
What is the first memory you have of a time when something was racially charged?
I think I was like 13 or something. I was with my sister and her friends and we went to the house of one of my sister’s friends. Somehow I found out that some of the other girls thought I was the helper (maid). At the time, everyone thought it was hilarious, but it made me feel really weird. I didn’t understand. I thought it was obvious I wasn’t…But if I was a kid of some other ethnic background, they probably wouldn’t have come to that conclusion.
Are there still racial tensions in Singapore?
Yeah. Shitloads. I feel it mostly in cabs or after shows. People always want to know which category you fall into. We as Singaporeans have been brought up to care or to notice or to register it. We have to register it from the time we are born. It’s on all our documents. You just grow up thinking its important or okay to look at as an indicator of something.
After my shows, people always want to come and talk to me and ask all these questions about my heritage or where I’m from or my ‘Singaporeanness.’
There’s always this kind of weird response to me being Singaporean because of how “unSingaporean” I am or whatever. In those moments I always feel a bit frustrated at how I have to validate my identity for someone else. Because I should just be allowed to exist without people questioning it.
But most of the time, because I know people won’t change, I end up having to laugh it off.
How does it resonate to have to laugh things off?
It’s helplessness. That’s what it is. When I think back to situations, anytime that I’ve been made fun of, a lot of the time about my appearance, I remember this knowing that I can’t change it. Knowing that there’s no point in getting angry because it would make me look even worse. Because you’ve already been stripped in those moments.
Where does racism or prejudice stem from in Singapore?
It’s systemic. It has to begin somewhere and the place that comes from is power. If we’re honest, in this country, the power is with the majority race, which is Chinese.
What I also see is that minorities play a part in keeping the whole thing going. They agree to be a part of it. At the show I just did, one of the women, she’s of Indian descent, was kind of making racial slurs about her own people. I just found that kind of backward, but I’ve noticed a lot that with us minorities- being derogatory about our own people.
Why do you think that happens?
When you don’t have the power, you make the jokes about yourself because you’re not sure what will happen if you make the jokes about the people who have the power.
Do you think it’s getting better at all?
I don’t know if I feel like it’s shifting because the people I surround myself with are more informed about these things or more open-minded, but I do think that it’s changing.
More and more when I tell taxi drivers that I’m Singaporean, they don’t question it. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m being clear and truthful when I say it. Maybe my accent is a bit more Singaporean than it used to be, but the questions I used to get don’t happen as much, ‘like why do you speak like that, why is your hair like that…’
What can people do in their own communities to make things better?
Have a conversation about it. It’s easier to do with a friend. A lot of the time if you want to help a bigot see that what they’re doing is wrong, being friends with them first helps. They can understand where your values come from.
If you don’t really know someone and you’re suddenly telling them they’re wrong, a lot of people won’t know how to deal with that, and they’ll just shut down. If we choose to respond with love and genuine care and awareness that maybe this other person doesn’t fully understand and we can help them, that’s a much easier way for the message to slide in.
But it’s hard. In those moments, sometimes I don’t feel like speaking peacefully. And even if you’re nice about it, you don’t know how people will respond.
What can people who are part of the majority do to educate themselves and make things better, rather than letting that burden fall to those who have been oppressed?
I think the first step is to recognize that you have the power or that you belong to the privileged population. To be honest, in the past I have been frustrated by people’s refusal to accept that the playing field is unequal. That can be incredibly offensive and hurtful because it suggests that the state of things is due to some kind of meritocracy. And often it really isn’t.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be that thing where you’re apologizing on behalf of your “group” for their behavior, but just the self-awareness, to begin with, is enough for me. To acknowledge that racism even exists here. To acknowledge that our culture perpetuates it through the pretending that it’s okay to make casual slurs. To acknowledge that we might have been an oppressor. Or that we are.